Seeking elusive ‘alpha,’ investors scour the globe
by Bernard Condon, AP Business Writer
June 25, 2012 04:45 PM | 355 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
NEW YORK (AP) _ You can leap off a mountainside in extreme skiing, kick and claw to near death in extreme fighting and twist yourself into a pretzel in extreme yoga. Why not turn investing into an adventure sport?

Professional money managers are scouring the world for oddball assets, desperate to find anything that moves to its own beat rather than rising and falling with everything else in the financial markets.

They are putting money into racehorses, stakes in lawsuits, old coins, even the copyrights to old pop songs. One fund manager bought stock in a beer company called Bralirwa in Rwanda, where tribal rivalry led to a genocide that left 800,000 people dead in 1994.

“Rwanda triggers a lot of bad memories, so people don’t even think of investing there, but there’s huge opportunity,” says Lawrence Speidell of Frontier Market Select Fund, which also owns stock in an Iraqi soft drink bottler and a Palestinian telephone company.

Bralirwa stock has risen 150 percent since Speidell bought it early last year. But the real appeal is that it did so in a steady, calm way, disregarding events that have made the rest of the world’s stock markets bumpy and frightening, like the Japanese tsunami and European debt troubles.

And Bralirwa keeps bucking the headlines. Last month, while stocks in the U.S., Europe, Asia and Latin America fell because of fear that Greece would leave the euro and Spain needed a bailout, Bralirwa rose 6.5 percent. Even Apple, a stock known to shrug off scary headlines itself, got swept along in the downdraft.

In trading jargon, the Rwandan company and some of Speidell’s other exotic holdings are “uncorrelated.” They have a tendency to move to their own rhythm, a sort of Holy Grail in investing.

Discover enough of these assets and a money manager might claim to have achieved “alpha,” an ability to beat the Standard & Poor’s 500 or other indexes without taking on more risk.

Convincing investors of the claim is another matter. For years, ordinary investors trusted their fund managers, paying them tens of billions of dollars in annual fees. But they’ve grown skeptical. They’ve pulled more than $400 billion from U.S. stock mutual funds since 2008.

Not only did the managers fail to protect against losses in the financial crisis that year, but too much of what they’ve bought since seems to ride up and down with the stock indexes.

Not lawsuits, though. In exchange for a cut of the winnings, funds have sprung up to help pay for suits brought by wives in divorce court, by 9/11 cleanup crews against New York City for health problems and, in one case, by two foreign businessmen in a two-decade dispute with the republic of Georgia for reneging on a gas-pipeline deal.

“It gives David a chance against Goliath,” says Sean Coffey, co-founder of BlackRobe Capital Partners, a lawsuit-financing company started last year. And, he adds, “It doesn’t matter what happens in Greece.”

It can prove just as risky. In lawsuit investing, a fund gets something akin to a share of one side of the dispute. If that side loses in court, the investors are out their money. If that side wins, the investors get their money back with profit.

Sometimes big profit. In one celebrated case, Burford Group, a lawsuit lender, contributed $4 million in November 2010 to help Indians from the Ecuadorean rain forest pay for a pollution suit against Chevron.

A few months later, an Ecuadorean judge ordered the oil company to pay $18 billion. Chevron appealed and lost, but is suing lawyers and consultants from the other side for fraud. Burford appeared in position to collect big profits _ or rather could have if it hadn’t traded much of its stake in the outcome to an undisclosed firm.

Yes, you can trade lawsuit stakes like stocks.

For years, professional investors in pursuit of alpha poured money into developing countries, stocks of small companies, commodities and funds buying pricey art or wine. Success has been rare, which has only driven the pros to venture deeper, farther.

Once upon a time, putting money into Brazilian, Russian, Indian and Chinese stocks was considered the kind of extreme investing that could protect investors. Even if U.S. stocks fell, the so-called BRIC markets would rise as the middle classes of these countries grew.

Or so the thinking went. Then came the U.S. financial crisis, and investors discovered foreign markets had too many trade and financial ties with the U.S. to offer much help. In fact, they can make things worse. U.S. stocks fell 37 percent in 2008, but each of the BRICs fell more.

Since then, those markets have broken the link with the U.S. only occasionally, though not always in a good way. Stocks in each of these emerging economies fell 20 percent or more last year while the S&P 500 gained 2.1 percent, if you count dividends.

Another popular diversification move, buying commodities, used to work. When stock prices were falling, it was often because commodity prices were rising. Buying commodities at the right time handed investors big profits.

But in a United Nations report in March, two economists tracking commodity prices over 16 years found they increasingly move up and down with U.S. stocks, instead of in opposite directions as in the past. In May, the S&P 500 fell 6 percent and commodities lost 9 percent.

For the lockstep moves, blame the so-called wisdom of the crowd. No sooner does an investor discover a far-off place or obscure asset moving to its own rhythm than everyone else seems to show up with fistfuls of dollars.

The U.N. report on commodities, for instance, notes that investors, including many betting with 401(k) plans, had $450 billion in commodity funds last year, up from less than $10 billion in 2000. That makes prices more likely to gyrate up and down with greed and fear surging across the globe in reaction to news, the same as stocks.

If you’re rich enough, you can always turn to the folks who claim to have more alpha than anyone else, the managers of hedge funds. The appeal of these exclusive investing vehicles is that they can bet markets will fall as well as rise, and often use borrowed money to do so, which provides leverage. For access to their alleged prowess, managers charge you $2 for every $100 invested each year, and take a fifth of annual profits, if there are any.

There weren’t many last year. The average hedge fund lost more than 5 percent, according to fund tracker Hedge Fund Research. Curiously, the dismal showing hasn’t slowed demand for the funds. They now number nearly 7,600, back almost to their peak at the start of 2008.

During the meltdown that year, one scholar of investing, a former editor of the Financial Analysts Journal, dared to state the obvious in a short article with a blockbuster title: “The Uncorrelated Return Myth.”

It’s not clear things have improved much. Exotic fare like rare coins and fine wine funds have mostly risen in recent years, but so have stocks, making you wonder whether they’ll fall together, too.

Avarae Global, a rare-coin fund that lost half its value in 2008, is up 27.7 percent in two years, a near carbon copy of the 26.7 percent rise for the S&P 500. The Vintage Wine Fund appears to be moving on its own more, but that isn’t necessarily good. It dropped 22 percent last year.

Better to stick with the song “Guantanamera,” which has managed to buck even the worst of times.

“2008 was actually our best year,” says Brett Hellerman, CEO of Wood Creek Capital Management, a hedge fund that owns the copyright to 30,000 songs, including the Cuban standard, and claims double-digit annual returns. When someone downloads “Guantanamera,” Wood Creek pockets as much as 9.1 cents.

Not adventurous enough? You can always bet on Madoff money. Some hedge funds are paying victims of the Ponzi scheme pennies on the dollar for their official claims on a hunch they will bring big profits later when the bankruptcy court divvies up recovered money. Or you can play the ponies. A firm registered in Malta is trying to drum up interest in a new fund, called Resco Thoroughbred, that would race them for prize money and sell them.

Those looking for extreme investing on the cheap may want to check out exchange-traded funds, which typically charge half what mutual funds do and, unlike them, can be traded all day like stocks.

ETFs are exploding in number and variety. Bullish on China, but only on the small companies? Think stocks in Kazakhstan are about to soar? Or the Polish currency, the zloty? There are ETFs for that.

Or you can skip it all and bet on the only thing that’s near-certain: That Wall Street will continue to sell the promise of high returns divorced from the U.S. stock market, and people will continue to pay for the effort.

Since its October low, the PowerShares Dynamic Financial Sector ETF, which holds stocks of U.S. banks and investment firms, is up 25 percent.

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